Drive-Thru Design-Managing the Pendulum

For a concept's drive-thru to be successful it must serve the interests of both the customers and the staff.

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Never has it been more important to get drive-thru design right than in today's very competitive environment. Many quick service restaurants have gotten so good at drive-thru that they measure their success in terms of seconds saved. QSR Magazine opted to change the way it approaches the publication's drive-thru study, focusing more on other overall aspects of the experience, instead of the typical metrics we are all so used to, such as service time, order accuracy, menu board, etc.

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This trend highlights the importance of approaching improvements in the drive-thru holistically, considering both the form, meaning retail design and "customer journey," along with the function, meaning operations design and "team member journey."

Retail design in the drive-thru area differs greatly from that of a dining room. One of the key differences between the two is that the dining room is indoors while the drive-thru is outdoors, having to deal with more unsightly areas, such as building walls and other less than glamorous exterior features like dumpsters. Some operators, like Sheetz, have played around with a fully covered enclosure that resembles a car wash to address the challenges of outside drive-thru service. In the 1980's Burger King augmented such an enclosure by testing a video drive-thru system, which included a digitized menu board. This effort was clearly too far ahead of its time, but set the foundation for many other drive-thru features in use today, such as full-duplex communication and order confirmation boards.

Undertaking an integrated drive-thru effort is not easy but it is critical. Both sides of the design equation, form and function, need to weigh in on the impact to the guest and team member experience. You can envision it as a pendulum looking for the right balance. Undertaking one without the other can lead to sub-optimized results. A drive-thru that looks good but functions poorly or one that functions great but provides a poor consumer experience is not a good investment for any operator. The design has to be in balance, with the retail and operational/functional aspects working in synergy to deliver the best customer experience.

Over the last three decades, I have had the opportunity to work on many drive-thru improvement efforts. Sometimes, during the execution of a project, it becomes clear that the focus is only on one side of the design pendulum and that some internal departments have a stronger say and influence on the final outcome. Changes to the retail design are pushed aside, with the thought being that a drive-thru customer may not feel that the lane design or the walls matter, since the customer does not spend much time in the drive-thru environment. Similarly, possible functional changes, such as the service system (single, double, triple windows and escape lanes), or the technology, equipment and production processes used to drive speed and accuracy become less important. The result of such an approach is a system that although visually new, or functionally more efficient, is not revolutionary enough and lags being leading edge concepts in the industry, because it does not deliver significant performance improvement.

Managing form and functional design when developing a new drive-thru system, is critical to optimize the results of the investment. The best way to execute a new design is to look at both areas simultaneously, and make sure the pendulum ends up swinging to the right spot; one that considers and optimizes both the "customer journey" and the "team member" journey, to truly make a difference in the marketplace and end up with a leading edge concept that drives value for the brand.

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